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How Drones Will Change Your Business

This story appears in the April 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Today's drones can scan, map and gather data in ways that once required satellites, planes and helicopters -- only available, of course, to big-budgeted enterprise corporations and governments. Now a powerful information-gathering tool can be had for a few hundred bucks. Farmers can conduct crop surveys. Construction companies can monitor building sites. Insurance companies and property inspectors can inspect properties.

Martin Klimek

And that's just the start, according to Chris Anderson, co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics, a startup headquartered in Berkeley, Calif. Drones present the biggest Big Data opportunity since the Internet itself. Here's Anderson's take on the business application of drones:

Drones seem useful, but are they really transformational?

Today the market is about selling the drones and getting them in people's hands. Tomorrow the value in the market will be about the data -- collecting it, analyzing it in the cloud and presenting it in useful form in countless industry applications. It's like the first days of the iPhone: Everyone thought it was cool, but not many really understood what it could do. Then the App Store opened and suddenly there were tens of thousands of uses for it, many of which no one had considered before.

So what's the future -- drones becoming so ubiquitous that they replace satellites and FedEx?

No, neither is going away. Drones provide the missing middle between ground-level views and what we get from satellites. Besides offering better resolution, drones fly under cloud cover and can better map and scan places and objects in three dimensions that can't be imaged from the ground or from space. And delivery drones are being used in pilot projects around the world (mostly in rural areas), not just at Amazon. But they're mostly constrained by regulatory restrictions right now.

Speaking of regulations, where's the government in all this?

Right now commercial use of drones in the U.S. requires FAA permission and licensing. The agency has granted more than a thousand of them, but they're temporary, pending a more sweeping set of new regulations due out next year. I'm pushing the FAA to institute a "micro UAV" category for drones weighing less than 2 kg and flying below 400 feet and within visual line of sight, which would have minimal certification and registration requirements. That would unleash a wide range of commercial uses.

Take us into the future of a drone transforming a small business.

Sure: Building inspections. Using a drone makes climbing up on a roof to inspect it predominantly redundant. Then there's cost. The typical home roof inspection costs $200 to $300. Depreciating the cost of a $1,000 to $3,000 drone for two years at an average of two uses per week, the expense of using a drone in a regular inspection is around $10. What's more, roof inspectors tell us that what used to be a six-hour job now takes an hour. And it's safer.

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